If your professor has sent you a link to this page, two things are likely true. First, you probably sent an email that does not represent you in a way you would like to be represented. Second, while others might have scolded you, mocked you or despaired over the future of the planet because of your email, you sent it to someone who wants to help you represent yourself better.
In part, because only a click or swipe or two separate emails from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and texting, the lines between professional emails and more informal modes of writing have become blurred, and many students find the conventions of professional emails murky. We think we can help sort things out.
In the age of social media, many students approach emailing similar to texting and other forms of digital communication, where the crucial conventions are brevity and informality. But most college teachers consider emails closer to letters than to text messages. This style of writing calls for more formality, more thoroughness and more faithful adherence (sometimes bordering on religious adherence) to the conventions of Edited Standard Written English -- that is, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and syntax.
These different ways of writing are just that -- different ways of writing. The letter approach to emails is not always and forever better (or worse) than the texting approach. Knowing how and when to use one or the other -- based on why you are writing and whom you are writing to -- makes all the difference. So, if you use emojis, acronyms, abbreviations, etc., when texting your friends, you are actually demonstrating legitimate, useful writing skills. But you aren’t if you do the same thing when emailing professors who view emails as letters.
Effective writing requires shaping your words according to your audience, purpose and genre (or type of writing, e.g., an academic email). Together these are sometimes called the rhetoricalsituation. Some of the key conventions for the rhetorical situation of emailing a professor are as follows:
1. Use a clear subject line. The subject “Rhetorical Analysis Essay” would work a bit better than “heeeeelp!” (and much better than the unforgivable blank subject line).
2. Use a salutation and signature. Instead of jumping right into your message or saying “hey,” begin with a greeting like “Hello” or “Good afternoon,” and then address your professor by appropriate title and last name, such as “Prof. Xavier” or “Dr. Octavius.” (Though this can be tricky, depending on your teacher’s gender, rank and level of education, “Professor” is usually a safe bet for addressing a college teacher.) Similarly, instead of concluding with “Sent from my iPhone” or nothing at all, include a signature, such as “Best” or “Sincerely,” followed by your name.
3. Use standard punctuation, capitalization, spelling and grammar. Instead of writing “idk what 2 rite about in my paper can you help??” try something more like, “I am writing to ask about the topics you suggested in class yesterday.”
4. Do your part in solving what you need to solve. If you email to ask something you could look up yourself, you risk presenting yourself as less resourceful than you ought to be. But if you mention that you’ve already checked the syllabus, asked classmates and looked through old emails from the professor, then you present yourself as responsible and taking initiative. So, instead of asking, “What’s our homework for tonight?” you might write, “I looked through the syllabus and course website for this weekend’s assigned homework, but unfortunately I am unable to locate it.”
5. Be aware of concerns about entitlement. Rightly or wrongly, many professors feel that students “these days” have too strong a sense of entitlement. If you appear to demand help, shrug off absences or assume late work will be accepted without penalty because you have a good reason, your professors may see you as irresponsible or presumptuous. Even if it is true that “the printer wasn’t printing” and you “really need an A in this class,” your email will be more effective if you to take responsibility: “I didn’t plan ahead well enough, and I accept whatever policies you have for late work.”
6. Add a touch of humanity. Some of the most effective emails are not strictly business -- not strictly about the syllabus, the grade, the absence or the assignment. While avoiding obvious flattery, you might comment on something said in class, share information regarding an event the professor might want to know about or pass on an article from your news feed that is relevant to the course. These sorts of flourishes, woven in gracefully, put a relational touch to the email, recognizing that professors are not just point keepers but people.
We hope that these rules (or these and these) help you understand what most professors want or expect from academic emails. Which brings us back to the larger point: writing effectively does not simply mean following all the rules. Writing effectively means writing as an act of human communication -- shaping your words in light of whom you are writing to and why.
Of course, you won’t actually secure the future of the planet by writing emails with a subject line and some punctuation. But you will help your professors worry about it just a little less.
With wishes for all the best emails in the future,
PTC and CHM
Paul T. Corrigan and Cameron Hunt McNabb are assistant professors of English at Southeastern University.
Last week, the University of South Carolina suspended a student for writing the n-word on a whiteboard in a campus study room. The university president explained that the student had violated the Carolinian Creed, which bars “racist and uncivil rhetoric.”
But in the United States, there’s another creed that’s supposed to take precedence over all the others: the Constitution. And the university -- not the offending student -- violated it.
So did the University of Oklahoma, when it expelled two students last month for leading a racist chant on a fraternity bus trip. The chant referred to the lynching of African-Americans, one of the ugliest chapters in our nation's history, and the students deserved all of the condemnation they received.
But our university leaders deserve censure, too, for their craven disregard of the First Amendment. Everyone has the right to speak their mind, no matter how much it offends yours. When Americans work themselves into a fine moral lather, however, freedom of speech is always the first thing to go.
Campus speech codes date to the mid-1980s, in the aftermath of several well-publicized racist episodes. Following the last game of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, drunken brawls erupted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst between white Red Sox fans and black Mets supporters. At one point, a mob of 3,000 whites chased and beat black students.
After that, media outlets ran a spate of stories about racist incidents on campus, including a mock slave auction at a fraternity. It was never clear whether racial prejudice and harassment had actually increased during these years. But it made for good copy, with headlines like “Bigots in the Ivory Tower” and “Reagan’s Children: Racial Hatred on Campus.”
As the last item suggests, liberals were quick to blame the alleged rise in racism on Ronald Reagan and the so-called New Right. As conservative politicians stoked the fires of prejudice, the argument went, our campuses should remain bastions of racial equality and justice.
Enter speech codes. By 1992, fully one-third of colleges and universities had enacted some kind of speech regulation. The most famous one -- which became a model for many other measures -- was adopted by the University of Michigan, which barred “verbal or physical behavior… that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap or Vietnam-era veteran status.”
But as a U.S. district judge ruled in 1989, when he struck down the Michigan speech code, the words “stigmatizes” and “victimizes” were notoriously slippery. “What one individual might find victimizing or stigmatizing, another individual might not,” the judge wrote.
A few years later, the University of Pennsylvania charged a student with violating its speech code after he pleaded with some partying African-American sorority members to keep down the noise. “Shut up, you water buffalo,” the student shouted. “If you want a party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.” In his native Israel, the student later explained, the term "water buffalo" referred to a rowdy person; but the black students interpreted it -- and his zoo remark -- as racial insults.
Penn eventually dropped the charges against the student and -- two years later -- it eliminated its speech code. But it was one of the exceptions. Most college retained their speech codes or added new ones, even in the face of judicial decisions barring such measures. Between 1989 and 1995, six courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- examined university or municipal speech codes, and in every case the codes were deemed unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s 1992 decision struck down a St. Paul ordinance prohibiting hate speech. Inevitably, the court ruled, city officials would be called upon to decide what was truly hateful and what wasn’t. And that’s not a call that any of us should want our government making for us.
But that’s precisely what our campus speech codes require universities to do. In a recent survey of over 1,000 Jewish students on 55 American campuses, more than half reported experiencing or witnessing an anti-Semitic act or comment within the prior six months. Earlier this year, a Jewish student applying for a campus judicial board position at the University of California at Los Angeles was asked how -- as a Jew -- she could maintain an “unbiased view.” And at another U.C. campus, in Davis, Jewish students opposing an anti-Israel boycott measure were heckled with cries of “Allahu Akbar.”
Both episodes made national news, but they didn’t lead to any official punishment for the students who made the offending comments. Why should racist comments elicit penalties while anti-Semitic ones don't? And why should we allow our universities to discriminate between them when the courts have ruled that both types of speech are protected? We need to educate our students against bigotry without turning our backs on the Constitution. But first, we'll need university leaders with the courage to do it.
Title IX and gender-based compliance. Alcohol and drug abuse prevention. Mental health. Student privacy. First Amendment expression. Threats to campus safety.
These tricky higher education hot topics are a starter list of the issues that are perplexing campuses across the country and are slated to be discussed at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. A common denominator among these issues and plenty of others is that they fall to student affairs professionals to address.
But my colleagues and I in NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education are more than just fixers during a crisis. Higher education must broaden the discussion of student affairs to include strengths and not just potential vulnerabilities.
NASPA released a survey last year of more than 860 chief student affairs officers and found that 12 percent of their time is spent addressing crises, which means 88 percent of their time is spent on noncrisis work. Unfortunately, most boards, members of the campus community and even the media only ask questions of and hear from student affairs leaders when the institution faces a crisis or they feel the institution is vulnerable.
With a portfolio that includes student learning and success; campus culture; health, wellness and safety; compliance and regulatory responsibilities; and leadership development, the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team must be a vital resource for all members of the institution as they plan and formalize the vision, goals and strategic direction of the institution.
Student affairs responsibilities exist across campus and the greatest benefit of our efforts can occur if we are allowed to break through self-imposed silos and partner creatively.
Here are a few examples of this type of creativity.
The University of South Florida launched a program to increase the overall student retention rate by 15 percent. Critical to the program are strategies such as expanded orientation, required housing for freshmen and intentional advising, tutoring and mentoring to support those students who are at risk for attrition. Students deemed most at risk are offered mentoring. The Office of New Student Connections was created to coordinate mentoring, coaching, online networking and programs to involve freshmen and transfers in campus life.
Elon University has built on the strengths shared by many campus leadership programs, which are often housed in student affairs, to increase leadership skills and grow core interpersonal competencies among students. Elon’s Center for Leadership oversees the LEAD program, which bridges the important topics of leadership and civic engagement. Elon is joined by many institutions, including University of Miami and Florida State University, in partnering student affairs professionals with faculty to create meaningful civic engagement experiences for students in the community, region and abroad. These experiences provide students with tools for self-examination and growth, and culminate in an opportunity for students to apply learned leadership skills in the community.
Employers have clearly articulated that they want their employees to have specific, real-world skills, and institutions like the University of South Carolina are providing leadership and organizational behavior training for students who qualify for work-study employment. Students earn money to help pay the bills, get job experience and are introduced to information and opportunities that increase their work-ready competencies. These experiences will help them land jobs and succeed in their chosen careers.
The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) takes a holistic look at the needs of its students by providing academic, student affairs and financial support to encourage full-time enrollment for all students, and specifically for those who are Pell Grant eligible. ASAP’s efforts include special seminars and block-scheduled classes, new approaches to developmental education, enhanced advising and career services, MetroCards for use on public transportation, and use of textbooks. To date, the program has increased semester-to-semester retention, average number of credits earned over two years and proportion of students who earned an associate’s degree in two years.
Student affairs work is growing in complexity and we are implementing best practices for delivering practical, real-life experiences to students that will help them grow and refine their leadership skills. Our staff members are partnering with faculty colleagues to position our students to graduate with interpersonal and intercultural skills. And we provide opportunities for engagement where student learning occurs best -- across campus in an environment that connects classroom and cocurricular learning. We’ve heard complaints about the skills gaps of our graduates and are focused on preparing our current students to be successful in their first and their most impactful jobs.
We want to present our work and be held accountable for what we do. Student affairs officers should be encouraged to share their metrics and examples of student engagement and success. Our student affairs colleagues are utilizing increasingly sophisticated tools to collect and share data and can offer concrete examples of how they contribute to the strategic initiatives of the institution.
We understand the pressure our leaders face to offer up compelling student outcomes, job placement rates and other indicators of degree value, and we welcome the opportunity to provide the qualitative and quantitative measures of our success that bolster these metrics.
Student affairs team members are more than just party planners and shoulders for students to cry on -- ask to hear how they are meeting the complex social, emotional and -- in conjunction with the faculty -- academic needs of today’s students.
The lines between student and academic affairs are blurring, and we welcome our role in supporting and enhancing the work being done in the classroom. Chief student affairs officers oversee the learning opportunities that complement, support and enhance the classroom environment. They play a vital role in retaining students and giving them the opportunities and skills that ultimately make them employable.
And, of course, we cover those topics that induce heartburn in campus leaders. Work is being done on difficult and serious topics by student affairs teams in conjunction with presidents, legal counsel, government affairs, academic affairs, budget and finance and other offices on campus to prepare for potential challenges to our institutions. As we all know, it is rare that an institution faces a unique challenge; we are learning from the experiences of others and applying the guidance of experts to refine our approaches.
It is the responsibility of the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team to provide students with healthy and productive experiences on campus to prepare them to contribute to society and the workplace. Ask us about our entire portfolio of work, not just the work most similar to the headlines of greatest concern.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Submitted by Jeff Rice on January 26, 2015 - 3:00am
Yik Yak accesses posts within a 10-mile radius. From where I live at the southern point of Fayette County, I am in luck. I live eight miles from the center of the University of Kentucky campus. This banal point means that I can continue to follow Yik Yak conversations even when I am away from the physical space of academic life. I can feel close to the students we work with even as I prefer to live away from them.
If I open Yik Yak at my children’s school – which is closer to campus – I am blocked from using the service by the app’s geofencing. Yik Yak, and the content it shares, is not for kids. Yik Yak, a free social media app that allows users to leave anonymous posts, has sparkeddiscussion within the last year regarding its content.
In 2015, a high school student pleaded guilty to posting on Yik Yak a threat to his New Jersey high school. In December 2014, the president of the University of Kentucky sent an email to all faculty and students condemning student Yik Yak responses to a campus die-in protest as “hate filled slurs” and “narrow-mindedness.” A January 2015 Huffington Post story traced a number of Yik Yak incidents in which racist posts followed a variety of campus events across the country at different universities and colleges. Such events sometimes lead to calls for banning Yik Yak. Yik Yak, this narrative argues, is a hate speech forum.
To my knowledge, Yik Yak is not banned anywhere on any college campus in Kentucky. On a given day, I open Yik Yak on my iPhone and am exposed to college conversations. The conversations vary: Sexual exploits. Bathroom antics. Grade anxiety. Moments of getting high. Reflections on Netflix. Loneliness. Support for the basketball team. Comments on classes. So little of what I see is hate-based. When I ask the students in the course I teach about Facebook how many of them are actually on Facebook, no one raises a hand. But many of them do use Yik Yak. In addition to Yik Yak, I am on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google+. I am not sure how many of my colleagues are on Yik Yak. I know of one colleague who is. He’s the one who introduced me to the app.
Some yaks (posts) I read as I wrote this are:
“Y’all motherfuckers remember mood rings back in the day?”
“I’m a decent looking girl, but I can’t get a guy to text me or like me or shit.”
“Do only girls work at fazolis in palomar.”
Despite the public attention on hate or racist speech, many college student yaks are banal: nostalgia, anxiety, questions about local fast food chains. Like other social media bursts of expression, yaks reflect of the moment thinking. A thought or idea pops into one’s head; the urge to write that feeling down in a public space follows. In that sense, yaks are no different than any other moment of written expression – from the invention of the essay to the popularity of the blog post.
Some other yaks I’ve recently read:
“I love Kentucky sunsets!”
“How old is too old to join a fraternity?”
“Curse you Mad Men marathon, curse you.”
Yik Yak is about proximity. A user of Yik Yak either assumes proximity (those near me will read this) or creates proximity (we are not physically near one another, but you are now close to what I am thinking). The media theorist Marshall McLuhan proclaimed proximity as a central tenet of new media logics. Information brushes against information, he wrote. Out of that proximity, ideas are formed. Italian theorist Michel Maffesoli framed the network need for proximity as a question of secrecy: we are never really sure why items interact or why we create proximity across networks. What’s our motivation? What do we hope to gain?
In the university, we encourage proximity. We ask faculty to develop relationships with students. We ask students to feel a relationship with the university (for retention purposes; so as alumni they will become donors; for networking purposes as each graduating class seeks employment). When we engage with social media, however, proximity sparks fear. Now we are too close. Now we know too much. As soon as we know what others are thinking, we get scared. Or offended. Or outraged.
“Yik Yak Opens Window to College Students’ World,” an Orlando Sentinel headline reads. The student world is a mystery to most faculty. Students are so close to us in the classroom, yet so far away emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. How do they study? How do they choose their courses? Why do they major in one subject as opposed to another? How do I get them to take my course? How can we get them to answer their email? Why are they failing? How can we help them?
On a given campus like ours, 30,000 people congregate daily. Some come to campus to live and study; others to just study. Thirty thousand people is a small town. And like all small towns where people are in immediate proximity to one another, gossip, hate, fear, prejudice, and insensitivity exist, often for reasons that are not clear. McLuhan’s main point about the global village, the space where media brings information and people into proximity, was that it is not a nice place. The global village, whether enacted on Yik Yak or in a dormitory, can be a pretty difficult place to live in. That difficulty can exist in anonymous posts (aggressive, racist, sexist) or in faculty attitudes toward those with whom they work closely (attitudes expressed publicly in conversation and not in confined platforms like Yik Yak).
Why do we fear, though, talk – albeit digital talk? The hallways on the floor of our campus building are traditionally quiet. There is so little talk. Behind each office door, I assume, a faculty member works, answers email, grades, reads, drinks coffee, daydreams. Some are exasperated with their students. Some are exasperated with their colleagues. Some are exasperated with me, the interim chair of the department.
Our offices, after all, are in proximity to one another. We work closely together. What would a faculty Yik Yak look like on our office floor if all of my colleagues, behind their closed office doors, were typing their thoughts into the platform several times a day? Probably not that much different from what students write.
Faculty typically become outraged at college expression, particularly that which embraces sexuality, alcohol, or disgust with college. Such expression, we are told, is indicative of a morality problem. “How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?” The Washington Post asked in 2014. “The theoretical appeal of Yik Yak is in two things: total anonymity and close proximity,” the Post’s Caitlin Dewey notes. She follows that observation with the caveat: “People thumbtacking a notice in a public space are still obligated to follow certain social norms.”
While I have only cited the banal on Yik Yak, I have encountered yaks that supposedly fall outside of social norms as well:
“Is 9:30 too early to get drunk by yourself at home on a Thursday night?”
“Ladies. How old are you and how old a guy would you bang on a date?”
“What’s your favorite type of porn to get off to?”
“I like to cover myself in Vaseline and slide around on the floor pretending like I’m a slug.”
Yik Yak is admission that there is no private without the public. Social media have always been a space that – because of the sense of proximity – feels private, but is, in fact, public. Whether we are discussing Anthony Weiner’s embarrassing bathroom selfies, Lucas Oil’s Charlotte Lucas’ racist tweet, or Cee Lo Green’s insensitive tweets about rape, we recognize how quickly private thought is made public. Even former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s private phone conversation becomes a public moment as the recorded discussion is duplicated and circulated to news outlets, blogs, and other sites.
College students are hardly the only people thinking the uncomfortable or the offensive. All around us uncomfortable thought exists. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are not the only people who make private thought public on a whim. We all do. My Facebook feed is proof. The majority of my Facebook friends are, after all, academics. They seldom hold back on their thoughts.
I am a Yik Yak lurker. Between meetings, walking to class, or heading to the parking garage, I might open Yik Yak and follow a string of yaks. I don’t upvote or downvote the yaks, but I pay attention to those yaks that earn many votes.
When I lead department meetings as interim chair, I doubt my colleagues are on Yik Yak, but some are posting to Facebook. Some are complaining that the meeting is going on too long. Some are changing their profile pictures. Some are discussing what they will have for lunch. Some are mocking other colleagues at other universities. Those private acts are quickly made public if we are Facebook friends.
At some point, my newsfeed will show me the post. Each post is time-stamped. Because the post is proximate, I will know that the very important point I was making about an upcoming assessment seminar no one will attend likely went unheard. Nobody, though, fears being discovered for posting during a meeting. Among academics, in fact, it is almost expected to complain about department meetings in a public space or a social media platform. Among academics, it is expected that we complain all the time in public spaces. Whether we do so on Yik Yak, Facebook, or Twitter is not important.
Maybe the reason I don’t post to Yik Yak is that I fear the potential, public fallout if I do post a yak: “Professor caught on Yik Yak complaining about colleagues’ eating habits and preference for fast food,” a headline in our local paper might read. We don’t expect faculty, that is, to post to Yik Yak because the discursive norm on Yik Yak is assumed to be abnormal behavior. Facebook, for the adults, is an accepted space for academic complaining. Yik Yak, because of popular discussions that exaggerate its utterances, is not.
If I did post to Yik Yak, I am sure that I would express my distaste regarding faculty preference for Chick-fil-A or that someone keeps dumping coffee in the men’s urinal on my office floor or that I hate Pink Floyd. But for now, I have Facebook for such posts. Facebook is the accepted norm for a discourse of complaint. And on Facebook, the private has always been public.
Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.
"I think this a real gut-check moment for you, Nathan."
His eyes immediately drop to his lap in an apparent effort to do just that, and I feel my shoulders sag. I look over at my colleague, whose eyes meet mine and then roll slightly. Damn. Nathan looks up from his gut check and eyes me quizzically. I quickly adjust.
"What I mean is that this is one of those important moments when you decide if you really want to do something that's difficult." In this case, it was giving up his habit of taking over-the-counter medication in excess. I, of course, had my own habit to give up: my tendency to use figurative language to explain a concept or suggestion or quandary in which my students find themselves.
For most of my career, I have worked with students who, for the most part, traveled with me down the road of abstraction (See? There I go again. Damn). I would sit with them and explain how texting an ex-boyfriend was like "touching a hot stove over and over," or how missing class repeatedly meant they were digging themselves a hole that got deeper by the day, or that seeing a counselor would help them box up those bad memories and stack them neatly on a closet shelf where they could be accessed without fear of being crushed. Not always the most elegant language, but it worked for me, and seemed to work for them.
These days, I find myself in the company of very different students. They live together in a residential and academic support program that was created to help high-functioning autistic students, or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. We provide a level of academic and organizational support that is beyond the capacity of most colleges, and in doing so, allow these often very bright students to take, and pass, classes and ultimately get a college degree and a credential necessary for some of the careers to which they aspire.
They can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam.
What they can't do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.
"Don't throw in the towel yet!" I implore Stephen, who is thinking of quitting a club he has joined.
"What towel?" Damn.
"Don't give up yet. Don't quit. Give it a few more meetings and see if you like it better."
I never realized just how much I resort to visual metaphors until I couldn't use them anymore. I am like a mechanic without a wrench, a hairstylist without a comb, a ... you see, this is my problem. I don't plan these analogies and similes. It just seems to be how my brain works. I come by it naturally, as my mother was the queen of the cliché, the euphemism, the short-phrase-that-put-all-in-perspective.
"Every cloud has a silver lining." "It's always darkest before the dawn." (Yes, teenagers love hearing those responses to heartbreak). My mother knew every aphorism available to English speakers. A well-phrased maxim was her primary child-rearing tool.
Perhaps she would have diversified her portfolio if she'd given birth to an autistic son rather than a daydreaming poet of a daughter. But she didn't, and now, here I am: in a job where I am often unable to use a tool that has served me so well in my work with students, a linguistic Leatherman, one could say, that I am lost without it (I just did it again, but that was pretty subtle).
"Come on, Robert. Don't let him get your goat," I say, trying to mediate between two students unable to be civil to one another.
"My goat?" asked Robert, suddenly sure that his nemesis was stealing yet another object of his.
"Don't let him..." What? Get the better of you? That's kind of abstract.
Rattle your cage? Ruffle your feathers? Get on your nerves? I settle on, "Don't let him make you angry." The conversation then continues.
My almost-daily moments of realizing my dependence on figurative language, proverbs, metaphors and other abstract notions make me very aware of the challenges my students face in the classroom. So much of teaching involves metaphor, which someone once defined as "using something we know to explain something we don't know."
In the rich scholarship of metaphor and meaning, this is more clearly articulated as two domains. One is the "source" domain, from which we draw the metaphorical expression: "Love is a battlefield"; "Life is a carnival." The source domain is our extant knowledge of a battlefield or a carnival, of things that are concrete, physical. The other domain is the "target" domain, where the metaphor takes us (to an understanding, in these cases, of love and life), to abstract and figurative concepts.
A teacher travels between these domains constantly, and the best teachers take their students there in style. Every academic subject -- literature, physics, computer science -- relies on metaphors for explanation of complex notions. And sometimes these notions become the source domain themselves. We refer to an organization’s core value as “being in its DNA," or a deeply held belief as being part of someone's "genetic code."
In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write of the "conceptual metaphor" and its importance in cognition. Metaphors influence not just how we think, but how we feel and act. If, for example, a group of employees is placed into two "teams" and asked to "swing for the fences" toward a goal, they may find themselves in a competitive mindset.
If instead, they are asked to work in groups to build a "house," with different "subcontractors" working toward a common goal, they may approach their work in a more collaborative fashion. A simple comment like, "Hey, we're all in the same boat here" works to inspire a group of people because they instantly, with no effort, flash to the image of themselves in a boat with their co-workers and then quickly grasp what the boss is saying: we're in this work together. Metaphors, and our individual and collective ability to grasp them, hold great persuasive power in our learning and working environments.
So when I imagine my students in a typical classroom, with a talented professor zooming between and among metaphors, I see looks on their faces similar to the ones I've seen when I've said things like, "This is a gut-check moment," or "Give it a whirl": bewilderment followed by defeat.
When everyone in the classroom seems to get what the professor has said except you, it is hard not to be discouraged. Coupled with the cognitive processing speed deficits that are not uncommon among high-functioning autistic students, one can see why their attrition rate is higher than their native intelligence and innate perseverance would predict. I know I'd get frustrated if I were them. It's very likely I would throw in the towel, or raise a white flag, even.
I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, “I’m going to make a comparison between two things” (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum).
I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself. One afternoon, I watched as some students tossed a brand-new rugby ball belonging to one of them, Shane, in the front yard of the house we occupy. An errant toss landed the ball in the street where a truck quickly crushed it. Shane was good-naturedly bummed about his lost ball; when another staff member came outside moments later, he said to her, "Abbie, my firstborn committed suicide."
She looked alarmed, then followed his pointing finger to the street where she saw the flattened carcass of the ball on pavement. "It was my first rugby ball, and now it's gone," he said, in mock despair. "Shane," I observed, "to be accurate, it was actually more of an assisted suicide." He looked at me and for a moment, I thought I had gone one step too far with the metaphor.
"Yeah," he replied, laughing. "But that’s O.K., since that's now legal in Vermont."
As more and more students on the autism spectrum arrive in our classrooms, as accommodations allow more students with nonverbal learning disabilities to succeed enough to land on a college campus, our attention to our own language habits must increase. A few years ago, I might have responded to that request with some resistance. This is how I talk. This is who I am.
But now, spending my days in the company of students who have to work incredibly hard to succeed in a traditional academic setting, even with the appropriate accommodations, I know the onus is on me to add another tool to my toolbox. Exercise some new muscles. Step up my game.
Or maybe just ... improve.
Lee Burdette Williams is director of student life and collegiate partnerships at Mansfield Hall, in Burlington, Vt.